Writing Urban India: Boosting urban academic writing among early career scholars

Blog 9th April 2024

In this guest post, the Writing Urban India organisers describe their collective’s work, which was supported with funding by the USF. 

India is the world’s most populous country, home to some of its largest cities, the largest democracy and a growing economic power. The relevance of evidence and scholarship from India for global urban studies cannot be overstated. Yet, even as the number of academic programs in urban studies has increased, very little scholarship from Indian institutions gets published in internationally ranked journals.

To bridge this gap, the Urban Studies Foundation has funded the ‘Writing Urban India’ (WUI) Collective, a group of reputed India-based urban scholars from a range of prominent institutions, including publicly and privately funded universities, research centres and think tanks, to design and run a fellowship program for early career scholars aimed at producing publishable academic outputs. Building on numerous collaborative co-teaching and research experiences, the collective has identified writing mentorship through interactions and guidance from experts and peers as a critical component in enlarging and improving the participation of early career scholars in producing globally relevant scholarship about urban India.

The Writing Urban India Fellowship was piloted between November 2020 and July 2021 during Covid-19, and a second cohort of Fellows were mentored starting December 2022. Each cohort took on 20 Fellows, usually PhD or post-PhD students and a few Masters level students who showed potential. The selection process ensured equity, diversity and inclusion along the lines of caste, class, religion and gender, using appropriate self-reported indicators.

Colour aerial photograph of Jodhphur buildings
The Blue City (source: Nico Crisafulli via Flickr)

The Fellowships were structured around three key pillars: mentoring, online workshops and a peer community. In the recently concluded cohort, intensive one-on-one mentoring addressed individualised struggles, while the workshops offered guidance for collective challenges like writing crisp literature reviews and sharpening arguments. With some support, peers were able to sustain writing groups and a peer-led presentation series where they exchanged knowledge and created a supportive environment for each other.

The WUI Fellowship has demonstrated some success in mentoring and supporting young scholars towards producing publishable academic outputs. Five Fellows from the first cohort presented their papers at an online workshop organised by USF and the Madras Institute of Development Studies on 27 January 2022. Of these five presenters, Amani Ponnaganti won the Student Paper Award from the Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in 2023 for her paper ‘Toxic Formations: Race, Place, and the Politics of Pollution on the Banks of the Ganga’ for which she received mentorship during the fellowship. B. Shahal also published his paper titled ‘Film music and the mediation of everyday aurality in private buses: Field notes from Kannur, Kerala’ in the Studies in South Asian Film & Media Journal in June 2023. Of the current cohort, ten Fellows are expected to complete drafts and one paper by Shweta Rani Khatri titled ‘Khula area: The urban and the pathological’ has already been accepted for publication in the Scopus-indexed Environment and Political Weekly’s Review of Urban Affairs.

While tangible outcomes were clearly expected and privileged as indicators of success, feedback from Fellows indicates they greatly valued the gains in confidence and the sense of support that they experienced. Overall, the WUI programme demonstrates that developing writing competence among early career scholars requires targeted technical knowledge of writing and publication processes as well as the sustained support of mentors and peers. The value of such time-bound interventions could no doubt grow manifold if longer-term support systems could be put in place.